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How cities can use data to take climate action

Data has never been bigger, but barriers to accessibility remain.

Many regions and cities find themselves ill-equipped to handle the hurricanes, extreme temperatures and fires occurring more frequently with climate change. For city planners seeking innovative climate solutions to implement in local infrastructure projects, harnessing data is crucial. All stakeholders — urban planners creating more resilient structures; transportation experts working towards vehicle and fleet electrification; crisis managers preparing for threats — need data for efficient, effective and holistic planning. 

And almost always, it’s not a question of if there’s data but a question of who has it and where it lies — while most of it remains out of reach. Many speakers at the GreenBiz VERGE Hawaii event last week expressed the need for this to change. 

Where's the data?

Within cities, separate agencies, departments and committees collect a large amount of data on public movements, patterns and infrastructure. Beyond public data, there exists an entire ecosystem of data that private companies have funded and collected.

But with collaboration lacking across departments and sectors, most of this data remains not only siloed or proprietary, but also in a raw and largely inaccessible form. 

Devra Schwartz, VP of operations at the Los Angeles Homeland Security Advisory Council, discussed the need for opening up data for public access and use. It’s "not just new technology — it’s a new way of doing things," she said.

It’s not a question of if there’s data but a question of who has it and where it lies.
Schwartz spoke of her goal to "crowdsource data for resilience." She discussed her own experiences creating the crisis management tool called SALUS. It merges data to create an interactive map that can be filtered based on relevancy and importance to create situational awareness.

SALUS could provide real-time information for Angelenos in the event of an emergency. For example, in the event of an earthquake, energy companies and consumers could see where the grid is disrupted on a map. The more data available, the more complete the picture — displaying, for example, the locations of power boxes or large trees, and the sea level near the power boxes.

To create the tool, Schwartz gathered a great deal of raw data from a variety of sources. Bringing in stakeholders into the room, both private and public, she showed them how the tool she was creating would help them all. "The stakes are too high," she said. "We’re talking about life, property, the environment, the economy."

Opening up data is no easy sell. Ben Sullivan, energy and sustainability manager for the County of Kauai, noted that it’s hard to find the appetite for "optimizing data for impact, not financial return." The technology exists, but for many companies, there’s simply no consumer-facing market,  he said.

Impactful data

Data sets are pretty much only accessible by data analysts and specialists.

As Sullivan noted,  if we want data to have an impact, it needs to be easy to understand. "It’s about the five people out of 5,000 who [are] going to hop on the data and do something with it," he said. If people chose to make their data open and accessible, others can find it and use it to help people. "If we want people to care … we need to make data accessible."

Sullivan's panel pointed to Norway's leadership in electric vehicle use. By sharing data about how many electric cars were in use and where, the Norwegian government was able to create incentives that allowed it to become the country with the greatest per capita electric vehicle use.

But it’s not only about sharing data; it’s also about understanding that data.

But it’s not only about sharing data; it’s also about understanding that data.
For the general public, visual data provides the most information because it highlights the significance of the data in an accessible way. As Jason Leigh, professor of computer science at the University of Hawaii, said, "Half of the human brain is dedicated to processing visual information. Turning data into pictures so people can make better decisions" only makes sense.

Schwartz also based her work on SALUS around both of these concepts. After she collected the data, she had to figure out a way to integrate the different sets in all their forms and from all of their contexts into a singular interface. She found her secret weapon: Visualizing data with GIS. GIS has the ability to combine and analyze multiple layers of location-based data, which was perfect for SALUS’ objectives. She highly recommended GIS and its applications to all other toolmakers; she called her decision to hire a GIS specialist "instrumental" to her ability to successfully create the tool.

Clearly, data can be critical in creating resources for resilient communities. "The key is being brave, being collaborative and being compassionate," Aki Marceau of the Hawaii startup incubator Elemental Excelerator said.

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